EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Orbán’s Politics of Fear and Hatred in Hungary

On a European nation's far-right response to the refugee crisis

Although the position on the migrant issue put forward by the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is morally hard to digest, many people think it is nevertheless the only way to save Europe from the flood of masses that threatens to destabilize the continent. I dispute this opinion. In addition to the moral issues it presents, Orbán’s plan for Europe is doomed to end in disaster.

The current refugee crisis jolts the very foundation of the European Union. The Dublin III Regulation is not apt to deal with the unprecedented flood of refugees. Enforcing the legal procedure by border countries could lead to unmanageable chaos, but if regulations are thrown to the wind, European law threatens to disintegrate.

The overloading of the migrant route has created tensions between neighboring countries. If a transit state slows down the passage of asylum seekers, hundreds of thousands will pile up in those regions, leading to an untenable situation. But if all transit states give a green light to all migrants, then hundreds of thousands will have to be registered and placed into humane living conditions at destination sites in great haste. Such a response would push to the limit the capacity of any country, even one as wealthy as Germany.

Is the Boat Full?

There is general agreement that control over the Schengen borders has to be regained, but this agreed-upon claim is understood in wildly different ways. The urgent need to establish simplified regulations to temporarily replace Dublin III is beyond debate. Such regulations would not decrease the flow of migrants, but they would at least ensure that no one enters EU territory without being registered. It appears, however, that many European politicians expect more from regaining control over the borders. They talk of screening out “economic migrants,” people without the unconditional claim refugees have for asylum, at immediate points of entry. However, the hope that such early selection would significantly ease pressure on the EU seems to lack foundation.

The vast majority of the new migrants are escaping from war zones, destruction, slaughter, and religious persecution. Thus, in good faith, they cannot be re-labeled “economic migrants.” Furthermore, although not of present concern, it is important to keep in mind that economic migrants in the coming decades will look more like today’s refugees than those whom we tend currently to identify under this category, i.e., people in search of a better life. These people will be leaving behind states that are unable to defend them from famine, water shortage, and natural disasters caused by global warming. Turning back “economic migrants” will, thus, provide no breathing space for Europe either now or in the future.

There is another idea for how to regain control over the borders. This argument claims that the outer borders of the EU must be defended, as if asylum seekers were the army of a hostile power attacking the EU with tanks and an air force. An impenetrable fence should be built around Europe; everyone trying to get in must be whisked away, including those eligible for refugee status. The boat is full, the argument continues, so we must shove back those trying to climb in, lest we sink with them. This is brutal talk, but many think that those who are against it are bleeding-heart idealists: there is no other realistic solution. Before denying entry, however, let us see if the boat really is full.

In Turkey with 78 million people, 2 million Syrian migrants have been staying for years; in Jordan with 6.5 million and Lebanon with 4.5 million, add another 1 million and 600 thousand, respectively, in addition to the half-million Palestinians. The EU’s population is 500 million, and its economic might far surpasses that of these countries. To be sure, the legal and moral culture of Europe would not allow for keeping refugees in essentially closed and miserably supplied camps for an extended period of time. To provide them with housing, work, and health care and to integrate them into the majority’s society has high costs — not always measurable in money — one that the Middle Eastern receiving countries do not incur. Receiving migrants, however, comes with more than mere expenses. Europe, Hungary included, struggles with a demographic deficit. Thus, to grow its economy significantly and to provide for its pension-age population, it needs more immigrants.

Of course, the needs of Europe’s labor force are unrelated to the humanitarian disasters forcing people to flee their homeland, and Europe cannot proceed by admitting those refugees it can use and sending back those it cannot. So the puzzle is extremely complex to solve, and economic factors leave it underdetermined. Given the very nature of this issue, the solution must also be political.

The number of migrants the EU can absorb ultimately depends on what voters agree it should be, which in its turn depends on the level of sacrifice they are willing to assume for the sake of accommodating the flood of human beings on the run. In times of crisis, it is easier to appeal to the fears of voters than to their reason. Rather than mobilize voter sympathy, it is easier to convince them that a refugee is not a real refugee, but an “economic migrant” who comes to take from them what they have earned with their own efforts. It is easier to make them believe that asylum seekers carry infectious diseases and indicate a significant rise in the terror threat than it is to calm a swelling tide of panic. It is easier to convince people that Europe should defend itself against an influx of “hordes” that do not deserve mercy, than it is to obtain majority support for humane and rational policies. In today’s Europe, Viktor Orbán personifies the politics of hysteria mongering.

Orbán: Words and Reality

Orbán claims that he is defending the borders of the EU, stemming the migrant flood before it overwhelms Germany’s institutions and restoring the rule of law in the EU.

Not a single word of this is true.

First, the international refugee convention is also part of EU law. Denying fair consideration to asylum seekers is in flagrant violation of the Convention and other human rights agreements also recognized by the EU. In similar violation are the new Hungarian laws passed in haste to provide a legal basis for rejecting those refugees in short order. Second, the Hungarian government does not enforce — even if it wanted to, it could not enforce — the regulations of Dublin III, and there are no new regulations. Hungary’s southwest borders are ruled, not by law, but by chaos and arbitrary force. Third, the only thing the fence built on the Hungarian-Serbian border could accomplish was to provoke unruly mass spectacles around it, which in turn have provided a pretext for the Hungarian government to harangue about a terrorist attack against the country.

Predictably, the fence has not stopped the flow of migrants. The only change it has produced was to turn the flood of humans toward Croatia, who now cross the Hungarian border via this detour as new arrivals are put on buses or trains heading to the Hungarian-Austrian border left open by both countries. Now, a barbed-wire barrier is being erected on the Hungarian-Croatian border. As of October 10, 2015 (the time of this writing), it is not clear whether that door will also be closed. If it is, the pressure on Austria and Germany will not ease. Migrants instead will turn toward Slovenia, from where they will either move directly to Austria or enter Hungarian soil to be transported yet again to the Hungarian-Austrian border. Of course, another fence could be built on the Hungarian-Slovenian border or on the Hungarian-Romanian border, for that matter. Neither would help Germany. If Slovenia secures a green corridor for migrants, as it has signaled it would, everything will go on as before. If it follows the Hungarian example, the flood of migrants will be stuck in the countries of the Western Balkans where the region’s weak states will in short order verge on collapse. The materialization of such a danger would be no less a disaster for Germany and the EU in general than the current situation is.

What, then, is Orbán really doing? Relying on all-out xenophobic propaganda, he has ignited hatred in the Hungarian population against the migrants, pulled Hungary out of its shared responsibility for the migrants’ relocation, and made our southwestern neighbors understand that their fate is in his hands: if he so decides, he can ruin their institutions. His message to Austria is no less menacing. At the close of his negotiations in Vienna, Orbán announced that originally he had the intention to meet with the leader of the Freedom Party. However, he cancelled that meeting upon the emphatic request of his government partners, although, he added, there would have been things to talk about. In short, he is saying: Do you want to keep HC Strache (chairman of the Freedom Party) quarantined? Watch me! It is solely my call whether he is released.

As for Berlin, Orbán went beyond veiled threats. He assumed an active role in the internal feud between the Bavarian prime minister and the German chancellor, and he attended a closed session of the Bavarian parliament’s Christian Social Union. At a press conference after that event with Horst Seehofer (CSU party leader) at his side, Orbán sent the message to Berlin that he wants none of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “moral imperialism.”

Change of Tactics, Strategic Aim

Notice that Orbán has made a 180-degree turn in his tactics vis-a-vis the EU’s major powers. From 2010 until now, he had avoided conflicts with strong governments, did not interfere in their domestic policy, and did not cross their will on European issues. He drew his sword only when he was attacked for building his illiberal regime on his own playground, and even then he was always cautious enough to target Brussels, which has no independent power, and not Berlin, which does. He could not repeat often enough that in foreign affairs he pegs his policies with those of Germany. Now, however, he goes directly against Berlin both in words and deeds.

Overburdened, Germany is trying desperately to achieve an EU-level agreement to distribute refugees according to a quota system. By contrast, Orbán is busy bringing together an anti-quota coalition. He refuses to set up hot spots (temporary camps where refugees are accommodated until they get vetted and assigned to a receiving country) in Hungary. He also lays the blame for the refugee crisis on the German chancellor.

Why is Orbán provoking Merkel and her allies? Because he smells blood. By his calculation, the refugee crisis will fatally wound Europe’s leaders. Not just Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France, but the entire post-World War II political elite that treats him as a pariah for dismantling liberal democracy. According to Orbán’s prognosis, the West has reached the end of an “intellectual-ideological era,” the end of an era when liberal ideas ruled its politics — not those ideas that separate liberalism from conservatism, but those that constitute a common ground between liberals and conservatives, particularly, the idea of universal human rights. As long as the human rights consensus has been dominant the “national-Christian idea” was not salonfähig, Orbán insists.

According to that idea, a country is a good keeper of its traditions as long as it vigorously resists pressures to change its culture and ethnic makeup. This is the sovereign right of every nation, and it stands above human rights. Hungary is a Christian country; Europe is a Christian continent. Immigration threatens Europe with Islamization, and there is a demographic contest between Islam and Christianity. Given the virulence of Islam, Christianity might lose the battle if Muslims are allowed to enter Europe in masses. European public opinion, Orbán keeps repeating, is responsive to this worry. Europe’s electorate does not want migrants to enter its borders. Under the pressure of the refugee crisis, radicals might replace the current political elite within a year or two. Orbán has not kept this diagnosis to himself. Nor has he addressed it exclusively to his audiences in Hungary as he had done in the past. This paragraph consists of citations, if not always literal, from his speeches and interviews given mostly to European and American journalists.

In brief, Orbán has entered the stage of EU-level politics with the program and rhetoric of the extreme right. He is the first European politician who has attacked the dominant “intellectual-ideological” consensus of the EU from a position of head of government. It is no surprise therefore that Pegida protesters cheer him on in Dresden, and that xenophobe groups organize sympathy demonstrations on his behalf in Prague and elsewhere. Anyone attracted to the slogan of fortress Europe can look to him for a guide.

Certain Disaster

What this new European role will bring for Orbán remains unclear. What the success of Orbán’s politics would bring to Europe is clear. It would bring certain disaster. Keeping the borders open is a severe test for the EU, without doubt, and perhaps its most severe to date. The current refugee crisis is without precedent in the history of the EU, thus nobody can claim to have a well-tested precept for how to deal with it. But no precedent is needed to predict that closing the borders would lead to the breakup of the EU of 28.

Fence building, the use of apparatuses of violence, draconian punishment for illegal border crossing, and routine rejection of refugee applications are all more than merely morally repugnant. As long as the relationships among European states are based on a firm commitment to fundamental human rights, as long as Europe takes for granted the notion that everyone who is persecuted in his or her homeland has a human right to seek asylum in secure states, the countries of Europe are obliged to cooperate in the admission and distribution of migrants. As soon as human rights are thrown to the wind, any obligation to cooperate goes with them.

As Orbán insists, it is every country’s sovereign right to decide whether to accommodate people of other cultures. Hungary, he says, respects the decision of France, Germany, and other states to allow its citizens to embrace Muslim communities. In turn, they also have to respect Hungary’s wish that its citizens should not be forced to live among people of a culture alien to Christianity. If this proposition carries the day, every country will be free to exempt itself from the requirement of cooperation. We would not live in a different Union, but in a disintegrating one.

To someone who believes that fences are sufficient for keeping out asylum seekers such an image may not be cause to worry. However, there is no fence capable of halting hundreds of thousands of people escaping from hell. Whether the EU is capable of meeting the flood of refugees in a united way is, thus, a vital question. Just looking at the present chaos within the triangle of Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, at the brawl among transit countries, suffices to show what the fate of Europe as a whole would be if EU member states deal with the refugee flood separately, as though merely a national problem.

It is a common saying that without coordinated action the Schengen system would come to an end: EU member states would lock themselves up within their borders. That would be a grave loss indeed, but much more is at stake. The migrant issue is a collective problem for European countries. If there were no European Union, it would have to be invented right now. Countries wishing to hide behind the bulwarks of national sovereignty have no better idea than to try to deal with this issue at one another’s expense, pushing an immense human multitude from one door to the next. Such a response would throw back their relations to the level of the Balkan wars of the early twentieth century.

In short, what Orbán offers Europe is not only repugnant for its inhumanity, but also doomed to end in disaster. Europe will either solve the current refugee crisis on the basis of human rights or not solve it at all. Either EU member states will agree to delegate migrant registrations to a joint Union authority and to a fair-minded, unified quota system that allocates among themselves those who are eligible for refugee status, or the world we live in will sooner or later be consumed by turmoil.

To be sure, a more orderly registration process and a fair quota system will not lessen the flood of migrants. For this, the causes of the mass migration must be eliminated: peace and orderly living conditions need to be restored in the countries ravaged by civil war — above all in Syria. In the longer run, brakes must be applied to global warming, and the most vulnerable countries compensated for its harmful effects. Achieving these aims calls for worldwide coordination, an extremely difficult task to accomplish. But for Europe to be an active and influential actor of world politics, it needs, yet again, to become a strong and unified international agent. This is one more reason why Europe will be able to prevail if it makes significant progress toward “a more perfect union,” to quote the US founding fathers.

Will We Have “A More Perfect Union”?

Today the EU is deeply divided. The refugee crisis has split its core countries and the countries that have accessed it more recently from each other. Observers usually explain this fissure through recourse to the two regions’ different historical experiences. During the decades when liberal democracy was consolidated in the West, the peoples of Eastern Europe were forced to live under a totalitarian regime. During the same period, Western countries experienced mass immigration: they became accustomed to the idea that people from other cultures could become part of their society with all its advantages and difficulties. Eastern Europe, by contrast, lived in isolation from the outside world. After the fall of communism, the opening of the borders primarily resulted in accelerated emigration; immigration — with the exception of the war years following the disintegration of Yugoslavia — was minimal. In the Eastern states of Europe, citizenries suspicious of aliens are governed by politicians not sufficiently dedicated to liberal democracy. Or so goes the customary explanation.

Although this explanation contains elements of truth, it is grossly simplifying. To begin with, in Hungary and Serbia large numbers of people have gone out of their way to provide refugees with assistance.Willkommenskultur is not a German privilege. Furthermore, public opinion in Western European is also not fully prepared to assume the sacrifices that this extraordinary situation demands.

The immigration waves of past decades have brought more than mutual acceptance. The cultural gap along with societal inequality has pushed toward segregation and given rise to a variety of tensions, magnified by the long economic crisis. The reduction of welfare state provisions and the sudden increase of unemployment have made large segments of society feel — rightly or wrongly, but almost inevitably — that migrants are taking away their welfare benefits and workplaces. Conversely, members of immigrant minorities, especially generations born in Europe, have come to feel that their countries have failed on promises of integration and social advancement; many minorities cannot find employment, and if they do, they are the first to be laid off in a recession. Such realizations provide motivation for many to seek psychological and communal support in their cultures and religions of origin, which is happening at the exact moment when the failure of secular, modernizing dictatorships in the Middle East has become obvious, when large masses have turned to Islam, a minority of whom have proven to be susceptible even to radical, political Islamism.

As a social reaction, fear of immigrants has taken larger dimensions, strengthening the wind in the sails of the extreme right. In France and Austria, respectively, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Freedom Party are already breathing down the neck of more centrist parties. In Sweden, there is increased support for the extreme-right Democratic Party. The minority governments of Denmark and the Netherlands depend on the parliamentary votes of anti-immigration parties for survival, whereas the current government coalition of Finland includes an extreme-right party. Even in Germany, where the majority remains refugee friendly, support for Merkel’s policies is eroding.

Nevertheless, pressing interests have demanded coordinated action and not without results. The EU Home Affairs Council managed by a large margin to break through the opposition to mandatory quotas. If this step is continued and if people see that all-EU solutions do work, then fears might subside and their mobilizing strength might weaken. We have no reason to believe that the defeat of European unity is a foregone conclusion.

The Responsibility of the Opposition

Regardless of what happens, every political player will bear a share of the responsibility. This is true even for the weak players. It is also true for the beaten and fragmented Hungarian opposition. In the current atmosphere of hysteria fueled by its present government, the Hungarian opposition could not immediately turn public opinion around, even if it were much stronger than it actually is. It could, however, offer fixed points for those prepared to lean against the headwind. We must also keep in mind that collective hysterias do not last forever. When the current panic subsides, it is of non-negligible importance whether the Hungarian opposition could begin from a good moral condition. For it to be able to turn around the present government’s wicked migrant policies in the future, it has to reject them right now without hesitation and ambiguities.

A democratic party cannot recommend that asylum seekers wear GPS trackers, as LMP, the Hungarian Green Party, just did. It should also not support Orbán’s fence, as MSZP, the Hungarian Socialist Party, just did. And it should not take the position of “positive neutrality” toward Orbán’s refugee policies, as the Socialists have just done.

Democratic intellectuals should not say, as György Konrád and others have, that, yes, Orbán is an autocrat, a nationalist, and a populist demagogue, but on the refugee issue he happens to be right. Democrats can say only one thing, and they should say it unequivocally: what Orbán represents is a mortal threat to Europe; it is not only morally appalling, but preposterous as well.

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János Kis

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